Christianese: “Low” Church Jargon in Contemporary North America
By Amanda Baker
Christianese is an in-group jargon used most notably by members of “low” Church denominations—usually Charismatics and Evangelicals. David Martin defines this discourse as “a lens for concentrating a particular angle of vision” (9). Like any in-group language, Christianese developed out of prolonged contact between people who subscribed to similar beliefs. It is characterized by the common usage of certain words, theological terms, and catchphrases. These words and phrases are usually found in standard English but with different meanings; without an understanding of the Bible or evangelical culture, the listener has no context to understand what is being said. For example, a Christianese phrase like, “set me on fire” is a request for God to renew religious passion. However, without an understanding of common Christian metaphor which equates God’s power with fire, this statement could seem like a suicidal request.
The History of Christianese
“In the beginning,” religion was so ingrained in mainstream society that there was no interruption between the language of Christians and non-Christians. Most scholars locate the beginnings of disruption between religious language and secular society around the time of the Restoration. For the next two centuries, religious language “linger[ed] on but only with increasing embarrassment, either as a vehicle for lower class ignorance, its final decline charted devastatingly in George Eliot’s Silas Marner; or, among the better sort, as a means of self-delusion” (Hammond 235). The widening divide between Christian and secular society at the close of the nineteenth century allowed for the creation of Christianese as a distinct language: society, concerned with distancing religion from daily life, abandoned certain words to Christian use, and the emergence of Evangelical and Charismatic movements encouraged the creation of new words to describe things like being “drunk in the spirit” (Jorstad 8). With the new division between religion and secular society, these words were not assimilated into common usage. This process quickly led to the creation of a substantial Christian lexicon that was invisible to lexicographers for most of the twentieth century. According to David Martin, this invisibility is due to Christianese’s “over-familiarity to some and remoteness to most” (Martin 5). In other words, those who used it accepted it as a matter of course, while outsiders were oblivious to its existence. This state persisted until the Ecumenical Movement of the 1980s and 1990s—a move towards Christian unity which led “Christians of all sorts [to] talk with all sorts of other Christians where they perhaps did not before” (Heather 275). As evangelicals began to cross denominational lines, differences in discourse were identified. Eventually, these peculiarities of speech began to be considered a network of related dialects that was playfully dubbed “Christianese”—a term which rapidly became yet another word unique to religious circles.
Elements of the Language
Seeking to name concepts specific to Christian culture, words like amillenialism, dispensationalism, and hermeneutics were applied to specifically Christian practices and doctrine. The names for sects—such as Pentecostal—are also integral to Christianity as a method of defining itself. With the differences between these groups, it is no surprise that these titles developed connotations and eventually, became used adjectivally. Pentecostal was used as early as 1904 to denote a charismatic sect noted for its practice of “glossolalia”—speaking in tongues (“pentecostal” OED). Today, a conservative Christian can criticize a church service as “too Pentecostal,” meaning that, in his opinion, there is an inordinate amount of emotional expression instead of rational order. In more recent years, the need to name things unique to Christian life has expanded to include new phenomena. For example, the term “slain in the spirit” was applied to the symptomatic fall to the floor while under the power of God that recently received world-wide attention during the “Toronto Blessing” of the 1990s.
Hymns are a common site for the survival of archaisms simply because many of them are centuries old. Interestingly, modern hymns also include archaic language—often juxtaposing modern speech with archaic usage. For example, Noel Heather points out that in the couplet: “[f]or us he was made without sin--/ oh, help me take it in,” a phrase reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Bible is followed by a modern colloquialism. Heather argues that this unique “pick’n’mix of styles” makes for a problematic but “striking” effect (256-7). Another common archaism used by evangelical Christians is the continued use of thou and thee as “a special or marked form for addressing God in a special or marked register” (Wales 77). Although the usage of thou/thee has all but disappeared, ritualized prayers, such as “The Lord’s Prayer,” usually retain thou/thee—as well as the archaic forms art, hallowed, and trespass—because the prayer has been passed from generation to generation orally. Thee/thou also persist in other “low” church rituals; for instance, Rev. David Imler, a Pentecostal pastor, introduces every communion with the words “blessed art thou Adonai, creator of the universe.”
One of the most intriguing qualities of Christianese is its tendency to change words’ grammatical function. For example, Christians can be described as born-agains after they have been born again, and people can fellowship (v) during fellowship (n). One interesting example—the word worship—is also a semantic shift from common usage. While worship’s traditional definition—the adoration of God—is used, the word is commonly employed by Christians to signify the type of music played in church, or a segment of the service. With shifts like these, words that appear in secular society become unique to religious use. Differentiation between sacred and secular forms in writing is often denoted with capitalization. For example, a Christian would write the phrase: “during Worship, we worship God for all He has done.” In this case, only the distinctive use of worship as a noun is capitalized and the capitalization of the common pronoun he signifies a reference to God.
The metaphor is an essential part of Christianese. Building on the highly metaphoric language of the Bible, Christians tend to describe anything sacred with formulaic analogies. For example, the use of born again to describe conversion is a metaphor straight out of scripture: in John 3, Jesus describes the experience in these terms to a young seeker. Metaphoric language is especially useful to explain the ineffable “inner experience” of Christianity. Christians often express Christian life as “walking with the Lord”—describing obedience to God’s will in terms of companionship and parallelism—while the disobedient Christian can “backslide” or fall backwards and downwards from a better existence.
The Function of Christianese
At its most basic level, Christianese serves to identify speakers as Christians and reaffirm Christian ideology (Heather 297). Thus, when Christians are communicating with each other, Christianese is preferable to patterns of speech used by secular in-groups. For example, Christian teens, notable for their unique speech in the secular milieu, tend to adopt Christianese upon entering a Christian environment, becoming, simply “Christians who happen to be young” (215).
The link between Christian language and identity often prompts the studied use of Christianese by the recently converted in a bid to bring about “self-transformation” (Stromberg xi). By adhering to Christian speech, speakers consciously submit their individuality to a larger Christian consciousness in order to become and be viewed as model Christians. Cultural anthropologist Peter Stromberg finds that this is often very successful, pointing to Evangelical speech patterns as “the basis for […] a deepened sense of commitment to the religion” (xii). The transformative function of Christian speech is possibly due to Stromberg’s finding that religious discourse allows people to rehearse and resolve emotional and psychological conflict. One of his test subjects, a woman, uses the language of Christianity to “sustain a balanced connection, as she sees it, to God, and thereby to maintain some balance in her life in general” (xii). Another man “engages Christianity explicitly as a therapeutic language to help him come to terms with difficulties in his emotional life” (xii). Stromberg notes that Evangelicals also seek to understand their experiences using the terms of Christianese. For example, the widespread use of Christian language after a death is an audible way of assigning meaning to loss, and reminding mourners that they will be reunited with their loved one in heaven.
Early contemporary Christian music showcases both the use of Christianese and its function as an identifier. In the 1980s and early 1990s, artists like Amy Grant, Petra, and Michael W. Smith sought to create a market for religious-themed music and willfully embraced Christianese in order to distance themselves from secular musicians. Consequently, “lyrics were soon overflowing with phrases and references all but incomprehensible outside of an evangelical framework” (Howard 69). One notable song of this time, Amy Grant’s “El Shaddai”—a foreign borrowing that usually translates as “God Almighty”—was enormously popular within Christian culture but was virtually unknown outside of it.1 Other songs like Petra’s “Underneath the Blood” and Carman’s “Lazarus Come Forth” are equally inaccessible to non-Christians because of their use of metaphor and allusion.2 Although recent Christian music has become much more accessible to the non-Christian listener, there continues to be very little crossover with the secular market.
The Varied Reception of Christianese
Christians usually view Christianese from one of two perspectives: they either consider it to be evidence of a positive separation from secular society (Romans 12:2) or nothing more than a set of clichés which masks the true essence of Christianity and alienates non-Christians. Christian opinion seems to be overwhelmingly of the second kind; a casual internet search finds thousands of blogs, articles, and websites that advocate for the abolishment of Christianese and hundreds of evangelical books that argue that Christianese estranges those who are unfamiliar with Christian culture.3 For example, in his book, Lee Strobel encourages Christians to shy away from using Christianese as they attempt to reach the “unchurched,” supporting the aggressive claim that those who support Christianese subscribe to an “idolatry of words” (218). Christian satirists have also commented on the issue. One ‘dictionary’ provides humorous definitions for Christianese, defining the phrase “that’s not my spiritual gift” as “find someone else” (“How to Speak Christianese”). LarkNews, an online, satirical, Christian magazine, creates over-the-top articles that radicalize Christian language in order to satirize it.4 The publication has also criticized the increasingly vehement anti-Christianese movement. Regardless of this criticism of both Christianese and the church’s attempt to eliminate it, the language seems to be thriving as never before. Modern Christian literature—most famously, the Left Behind Series—continues to use and thus, to legitimize Christianese in unprecedented volume.
At this point in time, Christianese has become a paradox. While the loudest cries congratulate the “sterling work” that has already been done to modernize the discourse and advocate for an accelerated disarming of Christian language (Heather 299-300), other voices warn that in order for the “faith to survive, believers need to learn the rules of a consistant ‘Christian language game’ lest they lose their status as a distinct group in society (301). In order to be relevant to the secular world, yet remain a cohesive group, it has become apparent that Christians must soon find a balance between these two perspectives.
1 “El Shaddai” was first recorded on Amy Grant’s 1982 album “Age to Age.” See http://www.lyricscafe.com/g/grant_amy/114.htm for lyrics.
2 See http://www.christianrocklyrics.com/petra/underneaththeblood.php for lyrics to Petra’s “Underneath the Blood” (1993). Lyrics for Carman’s “Lazarus Come Forth” (1992) are available online at http://www.christianlyricsonline.com/artists/carman/lazarus-come-forth.html
3 See http://davidcho.blogspot.com/2005/02/christian-ese.html for an excellent blog on the subject.
4 Access LarkNews at http://www.larknews.com/
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Heather, Noel. Religious Language and Critical Discourse Analysis: Ideology and Identity in Christian Discourse Today. Oxford: P. Lang, 2000.
“How to Speak Christianese.” 5 Dec 2005 <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/1611/christianese.html>.
Howard, Jay. Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1999.
Imler, David. Communion Service. Christian Life Centre, Ajax. 1997-2002.
Jorstad, Erling. Popular Religion in America: The Evangelical Voice. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1993.
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